Residents' mistakes can hurt you

October 19, 2007

You can be held accountable for residents' mistakes that occur on your watch.

Key Points

If you're an adjunct med school professor who has residents rotating through your practice while you supervise and teach them, what's your liability if they injure a patient? The short answer: More than it used to be.

Over the years, an increasing number of jurisdictions have taken the position that a resident, even one just starting out, will be held to the standard of a fully trained physician. As such, if the resident you're overseeing fails to meet that standard, and a patient is injured as a result, you can be held liable for improper supervision.

A recent New Jersey case, for example, found that residents-regardless of their specialty or years of training-should be held to the level of expertise required of established physicians. Earlier, a Michigan court had ruled that "although the applicable standard of care for general practitioners is that of the local community or similar communities, the standard of care for a specialist is nationwide." Because interns and residents aren't specialists, the Michigan court reasoned, the applicable standard of care is that of the local community or similar communities.

In reaching its decision, the New Jersey court stipulated that reducing the standard of care for licensed medical residents would set a problematic precedent. The defendants presented themselves as doctors, the court said, and should be held to the standard of care they claimed to possess. Anything less wouldn't comport with the care patients expected and were entitled to receive.

An Indiana court came to the same conclusion as New Jersey and Michigan, finding that a first-year resident is required to exercise the same standard of skill as a physician with an unrestricted license to practice medicine. Similarly, a Louisiana court maintained that an intern should be held to the same standard as a more experienced doctor.

Some state courts see things differently. In 2005, a Wisconsin court held an unlicensed first-year medical resident to a lower standard of care than a fully licensed physician. In so finding, the court said that although the resident could refer to himself as an MD, he wasn't as free to treat certain patients or conditions as was a fully licensed doctor.

Still, given the trend in many states to hold residents to a high standard of care, caution may be the order of the day. Supervising physicians may need to limit the scope of services delegated to residents until they're confident that the resident can handle these assignments. And they may need to be more available and provide more oversight than they did previously, lest they be held accountable for residents' alleged negligence that occurs on their watch.

The author is a health law attorney with Kern Augustine Conroy & Schoppmann in Bridgewater, NJ, Lake Success, NY, and Philadelphia. He can be reached by e-mail at kern@drlaw.com
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This department deals with questions on common professional liability issues. We cannot, however, offer specific legal advice. If you have a general question or a topic you'd like to see covered here, please send it to Malpractice Consult, Medical Economics, 123 Tice Boulevard, Woodcliff Lake, NJ 07677-7664. You may also fax your question to us at 201-690-5420 or e-mail it to memalp@advanstar.com
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